Roy Glashan's Library. Go
to Home Page
Non sibi sed omnibus
THE novella "One Little Thread of Life" appears here for the first time in book form. The PDF image files used to make it were discovered in the digital newspaper archive of the National Library of Australia. Readers who would like to view these files will find them here:
Many of Oppenheim's works appeared as newspaper or magazine serials before they were published in book form. The serial versions of his novels were often syndicated for publication in periodicals in the USA and other English-speaking countries. "One Little Thread of Life" made its first appearance in 1899 in The Weekly Telegraph, Sheffield, England, which serialised several of Oppenheim's early novels.
A number of Oppenheim's short stories, novellas and novels were "lost" after their initial ephemeral publication and were never printed in book form. These include his second novel, "Curate and Fiend," which is available as an RGL first-edition e-book. Other known "lost" works are:
The version of "One Little Thread of Life" offered by RGL is based on the syndicated serial published in The Age, Melbourne, Australia, in 1899. — Roy Glashan, December 2016.
"IT is," the man said thoughtfully, "a very great question to solve, and it should be very interesting. I wish that I could focus my thoughts. The more I try to think of eternity, the more I find myself wondering whether that black water will be as cold as it looks and what particular little patch of it I shall strike. It is very annoying!"
There was no one to listen, and the man was only mumbling. Besides, a nasty yellow fog had stolen unexpectedly down, and everyone was anxious to get home. The figures of the passers-by were vague and misty, appearing and vanishing like weird shadows passing across an ill-stretched canvas: the lamps from the crawling cabs shone with a weak and sickly light, every now and then a hoarse shout, followed generally by an oath, discovered two carts with locked wheels, or a cab horse making patient endeavours to step into an omnibus. It was not a night for curiosity or sympathy. If a man chose to loiter in an arm of the bridge and spend his time peering down at the water below--well there was nobody who felt it his special mission to seek out the reason for such Quixotism. As for the policemen, every moment of their time, and every effort of which they were capable, was absorbed in the disentanglement of a much involved traffic. The young man, who looked into the water and speculated dimly as to his approaching departure from the world, was unsuspected and ignored. It was not the fashionable hour for suicides, and the weather was all against it. A glance into his face might, perhaps, have awakened the suspicions of an observant policeman, but the murky, yellow darkness had folded him round, and from where he stood be was only a shadow. There was no one who had any time or inclination to wonder why he was not, like themselves, hastening homewards out of the choking, unwholesome darkness.
Having decided as to the nature of the spring which he would give, and which leg he would raise upon the stone parapet, he waited for a moment or two until the shifting fog below should show him a clear space of black water, beneath which he should find his grave. As a matter of fact, if his mind had not been very firmly made up, he would even now have changed the manner of his death. He was a young man of artistic impulses and instincts, and his notion of floating seawards upon the bosom of the great river, which had inspired so many of those whom he had called his masters, had been considerably chilled by the gloominess of the day, and the rank hideousness of his surroundings. It was distinctly not a pleasant way of terminating existence: but, while he was annoyed with himself for having made such a mistake, he never for a moment contemplated drawing back. He had come here with the express purpose a escaping from a life which he had dually decided to be both profitless and wearisome, and he was by no means the sort of man to be turned from bit purpose. It was not exactly what he had pictured to himself, but, after all, in a few short minutes, what would it matter! He took a last pull at his cigarette, threw it away, and began slowly to draw one leg up the parapet.
Suddenly he paused with a little gesture of annoyance, and looked sharply round. He was not mistaken. It was a man's breathing which he had heard close at hand--almost by his side. An intruder was sharing the little recess with him--not only that, but an intruder whose purpose was similar to his own. There was no shilly-shallying about this new arrival. He had walked straight into the embrasure, and already one leg was over the parapet. The first-comer promptly seized the remaining one, and pulled its owner back to terra firma.
A pair of black, fierce eyes flashed through the fog--an angry voice, tremulous with a passionate effort to keep it below the hearing of the passers-by, rewarded his interruption with a savage oath.
"What call have you to interfere with me?" the newcomer asked. "What business is it of yours? clear out! Do you hear?"
The man addressed shrugged his shoulders.
"My dear fellow," he said, "there is no at occasion for you to be violent. I merely wished to point out that I am already in possession of this spot, apparently for the same purpose as yourself. There are seven other recesses on this side of the bridge, and eight on the other; yon are welcome to any of them. This one, however, is engaged."
A short, hard laugh from the listener. Nevertheless, he bent forward through the fog, and strove to see into the face of his companion.
"And supposing I prefer this particular spot and this particular moment for my purpose," he said, "what business is it of yours? There are 15 other places for you, too. Go and choose one of them."
The other shook his head gently.
"Come," he said, "you are neglecting the fundamental principles of equity. Possession is nine points of the law. I found this spot first, and I claim it. You may just as well go quietly. I Shall not permit you to carry out your intention from here. I am not going to share a yard or two of Thames mud with a complete stranger."
Again the hard, cold laugh--the attempt to peer through the impenetrable pall.
"Upon my word, you're a cool hand. Never mind. You'll find that I can be obstinate, too. I'm going over from here, and nowhere else."
The young man shrugged his shoulders, and drew a little nearer to his companion. He had no intention of being taken by surprise.
"Better choose another place," he said. "If you try it here I shall stop you and give you in charge."
"I reckon I can tire you out," was the prompt reply.
"If you are going to try it, you will pardon me if I smoke," the first-comer said. "A fog like this gets in the throat, and makes me generally uncomfortable. May I offer you a cigarette?"
"Well, don't get cross about it. Here goes for a light. How oddly things turn out. A few moments ago I was thinking what a pity it was that such excellent cigarettes should be spoilt--the water so soon gets through everything, you know--and here I am, smoking once more. Better be amiable, my friend, and move on to the next recess. I shall last out as long as my cigarettes, and by that time the fog will have lifted, and people will he thinking us lunatics."
There was only a growl for an answer. The young man sighed gently, and watched the smoke from his cigarette vanish in a wreath of mist. All the time he kept one eye fixed carefully upon his companion.
"You will pardon my making the remark," he continued, after a few moments' pause, "but you do not seem to me to be in at all a proper frame of mind for the carrying out of your purpose. One should leave this world, providing the passage from it is to be voluntary, in a perfectly calm and equitable state. There should be no excitement, nor any undue dejection. You will forgive my being personal, I am sure, but I cannot help thinking that you had better wait for a little while and endeavor to cultivate a more suitable condition. Might I suggest that you take a little stroll down and endeavor to make a calm selection of one of the other recesses...No you don't! If you are foolish and struggle, we shall hare a policeman here."
A sudden, swift effort on the part of the listening man had been promptly and successfully frustrated. The two men stood so close now that the hot breath of one fell upon the other's cheek.
"Who the devil are you?" asked the latest comer, fiercely.
"My name is Eric Driscoll," was the suave reply. "You can call me Driscoll, if you will. And yours?"
"Richard Hobson--though what business it is of yours, or why I tell you, I don't know. I've stood about here like a fool long enough. I'll move on. You shall have your way; I'll take the next recess."
The man who had called himself Driscoll laid his hand upon the other's sleeve. "Come, come," he said, "don't be in such a hurry. The fog is getting thicker--any time will do for our little affair. I had to light this cigarette because of you. Stay with me while I finish It. I declare I shall feel quite lonely when you are gone."
The latest comer assented without seeming to assent. He remained where he was, sullen, morbid, fierce. His clothes were shabby, and his coat, buttoned up to his neck, betrayed the lack of a collar. He was apparently still young, but his face was hardened and lined as though prematurely. He looked Driscoll up and down and sneered.
"You're humbugging me," he said. "Yon never meant to go over."
Driscoll shrugged his shoulders.
"But for your arrival, my friend," he said, "I should have gone over, as you call it, several minutes ago."
Hobson remained incredulous.
"You're not hard up," he said. "Your clothes would pawn for a fiver."
Driscoll smiled softly. Amongst a peculiarly exclusive set he had earned the reputation of being a well turned-out man. This new testimony to his appearance amused him.
"You are quite right," he said. "I am not hard up. I have, in fact, plenty of money. What has that to do with it?"
Hobson was taken aback. His answer was not a ready one.
"Well--everything, I should think. Unless you've committed a murder, and stand a chance of being nabbed for it, I can't think of any other reason for a man to commit suicide."
Driscoll looked at him for a moment as a man looks at a creature beyond the pale of his comprehension. Then he sighed, and flicked the ash of his cigarette on to the pavement.
"My friend," he said, "you are, I perceive, a materialist."
"Materialist be ----!" was the rough answer. "I've had nothing to eat for two days!"
Driscoll regarded him in honest and blank amazement.
"Nothing to eat for two days!" he repeated.
"Not a scrap," was the answer. "It's all over now, so I don't mind telling you. Yesterday it would have sounded like begging. To-night--between you and me--It's only a curious fact."
Driscoll lit another cigarette.
"Look here," he said, "you are not at all in a proper state for experiments of such a serious nature. It is a little inconvenient for me to postpone matters, but I must insist upon your having something to eat with me somewhere. The fog shows no sign of lifting at present. An hour or so later will do for us just as well. What do you say?"
Hobson assented without enthusiasm, but with inward fervour. A few minutes ago be had been wound up to the keenest pitch of despair. It was death for which he was craving, oblivion, forgetfulness. The sound of a human voice, the lingering about, had chilled his desire. The river, after all, was an ugly thing.
Driscoll thrust his arm in his companion's.
"I know a little place in the Strand," he said, "where the food is decent and the wine is good. On the way we must get you a collar. Come along."
Together they stepped back on to the pavement, and in a few moments were lost in the yellow fog.
THE two men had eaten and drunk together. They were in a quiet corner of a small, but busy restaurant, and the dinner--carefully, even fastidiously chosen by Driscoll--had reached its last stage. The waiter, recognising in Driscoll with the unfailing acuteness of his class, the man who was accustomed to good service, and willing to pay for it, had done his best for them. The white cloth had been smoothed out, the empty wine bottles removed, and coffee and liqueurs were before them. A little pile of cigar boxes, from which Driscoll had carefully selected the best, had been wheeled up to their side. The dinner was over.
Hobson, notwithstanding a clean collar and a new tie, was still hopelessly shabby. He was sitting in a dark corner, but even here was nervously conscious of exciting some comment. His boots, which he kept studiously out of sight, hung together with difficulty, and there was a gap his coat sleeve which it was hard to conceal. He wore a flannel shirt, and his hair was rough and untrimmed-yet there was about his appearance, as Driscoll noted with interest, a certain air of intellectual distinction which was independent of his rough attire. The forehead was broad and well shaped, the cheek bone high, the deep set eyes bright and piercing. Throughout he had shown much restraint. Although obviously a starving man, he had eaten and drunk, from the first, without indecent haste, and with a correct knowledge of the ordinary customs of decent society. He could not prevent the wine bringing the deep colour into his cheeks, and the light into his eyes, but, realising its potency, he had drunk but sparingly, and not once had it unlocked his tongue, or led him to depart from the cold formality with which he had all the time treated his host. The meal had been a curious one from the serving of the hors d'oeuvres to the omelette. Such conversation as there was had originated solely with Driscoll. It was not until the cigars were lit that Hobson spoke at all save in monosyllables. Then he leaned deliberately forward in his seat and addressed his host.
"I am beginning to have my suspicions about you, Mr. Driscoll," he said.
Driscoll stared at him across the table.
"Let us hear them," he said good-humouredly. "I'll plead 'not guilty' in any case."
Hobson's tone took an angrier note.
"You have been fooling me," he said. "You were loitering about on the bridge to make sport of such poor devils as I am."
Driscoll held up his hand.
"It would be a sorry idea of humour," he said.
"Sorry or not, I believe it," the other declared. "What should such as you want to die for? You don't. You want to study other people. You are a writer or a journalist for one of those mew halfpenny papers, sensation mongers, pandering to the diseased curiosity of people who want to know how their fellows die. Why, I can see you writing your cursed trash. I'm off. I don't thank you for your hospitality. You'll get your value out of it."
He stood up, sullen, angry, on the verge of a fit of passion. Driscoll laid a hand upon his shoulder, and dragged him down.
"Don't be a fool," he sail. "Evidently your brain is not in a healthy state. I'm not a journalist--don't know anything about it, and I can prove that my errand to-night was the same as Yours."
"You meant--to die!"
"I meant to die."
Driscoll stroke quietly, but the truth was in his words. His companion re-lit his cigar, which had gone out.
"More fool you, then," he said shortly. "You have money?"
"There are many who call themselves such."
"I am well enough!"
"Then why, in the devil's name, did you want to die?"
Driscoll smiled tolerantly, and shook the champagne round the bowl of his glass.
"My friend," he said, "I might tell you, but yen would not understand. You have never experienced the miseries of surfeit--and the desire for death is a matter of temperament. Our points of view are as far apart as the two poles--as far apart as the man and the girl at that table, if I am anything of a physiognomist!"
He glanced idly across the room, and his companion also turned his head. A man and a girl were just seating themselves--the man gross, vapid, coarse, with yellow hair and red lips, ill-dressed with the effort at smartness which inevitably attains vulgarity; the girl, pale, with features as dainty as a Watteau goddess, soft eyes of dark blue, plainly dressed, with delicate hands, bare of all rings, and the smile of a child. The restaurant was good enough of its sort, but by no means first class. Yet the decorations, the lights, the crowd of people seemed to please her. She looked around leisurely, her lips parted, a becoming colour in her cheek, until her eyes met Hobson's wild stare. She sat for a moment like a creature turned to stone, the colour flown from her cheeks, and the light from her eyes. Hobson half rose to his feet, and then sat hurriedly down again. Perhaps he was conscious of the holes in his boots, and the frayed buttons of his trousers legs. He sat down trembling, and covered his face with his hands.
Driscoll was thoughtful: for the moment he thought that silence was best. From where he sat he could see the girl. She had recovered her self-possession marvellously, and was assisting her companion in ordering the dinner. He appeared to have seen nothing of that tragic little interlude--to be the sort of man, dull witted and slow of perception, who goes through life seeing nothing save the obvious. He called a waiter--noisily--and gave him an order, shockingly mispronouncing a French dish. The girl set him right quietly, and a moment later her eyes met Driscoll's. She started distinctly--the colour flooded her cheeks, and she seemed uncertain what to do. Driscoll returned her glance carelessly, but with all the appearance of a perfect stranger. Then, as her eyes remained fixed upon him, he looked away, with a very faint but non-recognising smile at the corners of his lips.
Hobson, when he raised his head, drank his liqueur at a gulp, and a red spot burned in his pallid cheeks. He kept his eyes fixed upon the tablecloth.
"But for that," he said, with as imperceptible movement towards the man and the girl, "I might have held out a little longer. Do you want to know about it?"
Driscoll nodded gravely. Hobson continued at once.
"Don't be afraid that I as going to tell you a long story. I couldn't stand it out. Besides, there's nothing to tell. I'm a mechanic by trade--know my business, and saved money. I might have been prosperous, but the devil took it into his head that I was one of his kidney, and sent me two plagues--an idea, and--that girl--Kathleen!"
His lips trembled as he pronounced her name. Glancing involuntarily towards her, Driscoll smiled to himself.
Their presence had spoilt the evening for the man. The girl was distraite, and glanced often towards them. The man was getting morose.
"The idea," Hobson continued, "made an inventor of me--the girl--well, you see! If my idea had worked out as it should have done, as some day it will, it would have made my fortune, and she would have been mine. But I had no capital, and the luck went dead against me. I lost my place, spent my money, one would believe in my model, although I set it working before them. I drank a little, lost my character, and Kathleen's parents, who are highly respectable, kicked me out. What they would say if they saw her here with that man I don't know. She was always such a girl for pleasure. She would have it at any cost."
"She treated you badly, then," Driscoll remarked.
"I suppose so! I don't know that I could expect anything else, though. Look at me! I'm no fit companion for such as her."
"Neither," Driscoll said, "is her present companion. He is a frightful-looking bounder."
"If I thought," Hobson said, "that he meant her harm, I would live at least until I had settled accounts with him. But that's not likely. She's as good as gold, and any man in the world would be proud to marry her."
Driscoll felt a sudden desire to change the conversation.
"Tell me," he said, "about this idea of yours. Why did you fail?"
"Want of capital."
Hobson laughed bitterly.
"You are young," he said, "or you know nothing of the city and her ways. Swindlers and bogus company promoters have only to raise their hands and gold falls into them like streams. An honest man, with an honest idea, finds every pocket closed upon him. The man who has money to lend is the most stupid and the most gullible person in the world."
"I am not mechanical," Driscoll said, "and I hate long explanations which I can't understand. Tell me, in half a dozen words, what your idea is."
Hobson was silent for a moment. Then be answered--
"The cheaper generation and storage of electricity. I could make it the first and only motive force in the world, and show huge profits on the old system."
"And the capital?"
"I want, say, a thousand pounds for experiments. After that, if I asked for five millions, I guarantee that people would come tumbling over one another to offer it."
Driscoll lit a cigarette. The dinner to their right was proceeding silently. The man had ordered a bottle of the cheapest champagne, to dispel the gloom which he could not understand. All the time the girl was asking herself these questions: "Who is he?" "What has he to do with poor Dick?" "What are they talking about?"
Driscoll smoked intently for a moment.
"Come," he said, "we Will make a bargain, you and I. My own affairs have ceased so utterly to interest me that I was prepared to say farewell to them for ever, an hour or two ago. Since you have been talking to me I have an idea. So far as I remember, I have succeeded in realising, in my own life, the most complete ideal of selfishness--I mean to say, that I have never done anyone a kindness, nor lifted even my little finger, for anyone else's benefit than my own. It is a fashion of life most commendable to the intelligence, but which has not, in my ease, proved so successful as one might expect. Very well! I will try an experiment. I will take a brief interest in the affairs of someone else--you, as you happen to have interested me for more than an hoar. I will give you a cheque for your experiments, and I will undertake that it shall be you who sees that young lady home to-night to her highly respectable parents, on--wait a moment, please--three conditions. First, that you do not thank me; secondly, that you do not bother me with details about your experiments; thirdly, that you take it quietly when I drop you altogether, which I shall do as soon as you cease to interest me. What do you say?"
Hobson had been on the point of an outburst. With an effort he kept it back. He answered quite coolly:--
"I am perfectly agreeable," he said. "I had no idea of thanking you, as it is evident you are advancing the money purely for the purpose of gratifying a whim, and not in the least out of kindness. As regards the details of my idea, I would much rather keep them to myself. Kath--the girl! How can you answer for her."
"You shall see," Driscoll said. He paid the bill--so liberally that the head waiter himself and two of his satellites bowed them to the door, and he arranged to cover Hobson's retreat, so that his general shabbiness was as little to be observed as possible. The girl would have spoken to him, but Driscoll saw that there should be no opportunity. Her companion looked up, frowning--Driscoll ignored him, as also did the girl. There was never a quiver on her eyelids. She looked into his face calmly--perfectly conscious that Hobson had talked to this man of her, yet in a measure, as he knew from the first, anxious that he should realise her beauty. The wing doors were opened, and Hobson was already in the street. Driscoll took his hat from the bowing waiter, and followed.
THE two men drove in a hansom to the address which Driscoll gave and, looking out over the apron at the crowded streets, the brilliantly lit places of entertainment, the restaurants with their flood of light, women everywhere, dainty, voluptuous, an ever flowing stream of colour, he laughed shortly, as he realised that he was once more a unit in the throng to which, a few hours ago, he had bidden farewell for ever. And on what an errand he was bent. The humour of that idea was, perhaps, the most poignant with him, and he laughed until Hobson looked at him suspiciously and began to wonder, with a dull, sickening fear, whether, after all, he was not bound upon a fools errand, with a man whose brain had been touched.
The cab drew up at the door of a very handsome house in Hamilton Place. A man servant opened the door, and Driscoll led the way into a room on the ground floor. He touched a knob, and electric light flashed from the walls and ceiling. Driscoll pointed to a little pile of letters on the secretaire, which stood open.
"A little time ago," he said, "you accused me of not being in earnest. Read those letters and satisfy yourself. They are my farewells to the world. You decline! Well, that is rather a pity. To tell you the truth, I am proud of them. I remembered in writing that last impressions are best, and I devoted some care to their composition. It is a pity to destroy them, but I suppose they mast go."
He took them up in his hand and strolled to the fireplace. The glow from the shaded lights was upon his face and Hobson, with a sort of grudging admiration, appreciated, for the first time, the power of good looks in a man. For, notwithstanding his tired eyes and a pale face, Eric Driscoll was a remarkably handsome man. He looked down at the letters as he threw them into the fire with a smile, half of amazement, half cynical.
"This," he said, with one poised in his fingers over the dancing dames, "was to a lady. She did me the honour to fancy herself in love with me, and I am afraid it would have given her quite a shock. Her dinner, perhaps even her supper, would have been completely spoiled. On second thoughts, however, I am not sure about the supper! She would have had three hours in which to recover, and three hours is a very long time. Here goes!"
He tossed it into the flames and looked at the next.
"This was to my solicitors," he remarked. "I can see their faces when they opened it. I know exactly how many times they would say 'how shocking' before they considered it decent to discuss the question of succession duties! Bah! I am beginning to maunder, and this must sound to you, my dear Hobson, like very cheap cynicism! Away with it. Let us turn to your affairs which, after all, are much more interesting."
Hobson looked around him--he was in a room which luxury and art had united to make magnificent. Then he turned to Driscoll and, in his tone, wonder was mingled with contempt.
"You are in no particular trouble, and you wanted to leave--this," he said. "You must be--a little mad."
"That is perfectly true," Driscoll admitted, "but are we not all--'a little mad?'"
"I'm not," Hobson said shortly. "I know when I'm well off, and I know when I'm starving. I'd like to hear what you've got to say to me."
Driscoll wheeled a smoking cabinet into the centre of the room and touched a spring. There were cigars and cigarettes of every kind, neatly arranged in boxes.
"Quite right, my friend," Driscoll said. "Now, help yourself. About your invention--I will write you a cheque for the experiments."
Hobson held his breath. After all then it was to come to pas. In less than a minute the cheque was in his hands. The rags seemed to fall away from him. He held himself upright again. He was a man once more.
Driscoll rose up and came to the hearth-rug. He leaned his elbow upon the broad mantelshelf. For a moment or two he looked thoughtfully into the fire--then he turned to Hobson.
"With regard to other matters," he said, "there is the girl. Now, my friend Hobson, I am not a serious man, nor am I a moral man, and my worst enemy has never called me a good natured man. I am going to offer you what you will jeer at--my advice."
"Go on," said Hobson.
"If one has only the facility for enjoyment," Driscoll continued, "well, I see no fault to find with this particular constellation which we call the earth. But one needs facility and one thing besides. Personally, I haven't the facility. I believe you have, but I am not sure about one thing besides--and it is so important."
"You want to know what it is. I am just as anxious to tell you. It is the strength of mind, the governance of passion so controlled that no one object in life shall become the centre of all your hope. Love If you will, but love many and love lightly, desire by all means, but don't concentrate all your desires upon one woman. Sip all the pleasures of life they come to you, but don't point to one bowl of wine and say to yourself, 'that bowl holds all that my lips would taste, all that my heart desires. I will quaff it to the dregs; none other shall serve me!' Don't do that--for if you should find the wine sour--well, the bridge is always there! By the bye, Hobson, she is very beautiful!"
"There is no one the her on earth."
"Ah! that sounds so like it boy! And I fancy that you are not so very old, my friend Hobson--at least as far as women are concerned. She gave you up, did she not, when you began to go down hill?"
Hobson's face was fierce and white. The hand which held the cigar shook.
"Her people made her! They are very respectable. Her father is a bank-clerk."
Driscoll's face remained unchanged. He tapped softly upon the mantelpiece with his fingers.
"Exactly! A bank clerk! Most respectable! They live in the suburbs no doubt."
"A charming neighbourhood! A most interesting family, I am sure. She lives--at home?"
"Ah! You mustn't mind my questions! Do you know, Hobson, I am a bit of a physiognomist. The girl's face was striking. She is discontented. Discontent is such a dangerous state for a girl like that."
"Do you mean to insinuate--"
"Nothing. Only, Hobson, you mustn't forget this. The daughter of a respectable bank clerk living at Balham should not be dining at a restaurant like the Monopole alone with any man! You have faith in her! I would be the last man in the world to attempt to destroy it. Only if you are as stubborn and unchanging as your face, if you really set your heart and mind upon this girl, see her to-night, and tell her that she must make her choice once more and for ever, and take her away from that man. Remember--"
"I know! But I was miserably poor, then--and I was violent. I don't remember what I said, but I believe I frightened her. How can I see her to-night?"
Driscoll touched the electric bell.
"I am sending for my servant," he said. "He will rig you out in some evening clothes--you mustn't mind, it's necessary. Leave the rest to me."
"But do you know where they will be?" Hobson asked.
"I heard the young lady decide as to their evening's entertainment," he said drily. "They are going to the Alhambra. The man insisted upon a music hall, because he wanted to smoke. I thought you would have overheard their little controversy. They seemed to disagree about something. The girl wanted to go to the Savoy for supper, and was disappointed because the man was not in evening dress. He seemed to think that Gatti's was good enough. By the by, does the last train to Balham admit of supper after the theatre?"
"I'm not sure," Hobson said, hoarsely. "Here is your servant."
Driscoll turned to him.
"Mr. Hobson has no evening clothes with him," he said, coolly. "Take him into my dressing room and find him everything he requires. Lay out my own things somewhere. Be as sharp as you can."
Driscoll remained alone for a few moments. He took a cigarette from a box on the shelf and lit it.
"Another piece of Quixotism," he murmured softly to himself. "I wonder whether Hobson will thank me for this in a year's time."
A SPANISH woman had come to the Alhambra for three nights, on her way to St. Petersburg, and when the two men entered the box which Driscoll had sent for, they found the house full to overflowing.
"There is just a chance," Driscoll remarked, as he drew off his overcoat and scanned the front of the house, "that our friends may not have been able to get a seat."
Hobson came anxiously to the front, but Driscoll motioned him back.
"I wouldn't seem too anxious about them if I were you," he said. "Sit down, and we will look about leisurely. Take up your programme, and see what the show is about. One loses so much in this world by being in a hurry."
Hobson, marvellously transformed by his irreproachable clothes, and the care of Driscoll's valet, did as he was told, although the words of the programme were illegible to him, and the figures on the stage shadowy puppets at the best. The two men, somewhat conspicuous in the large stage box, divided their attention fairly enough between the audience the performance. Driscoll nodded now and then to an acquaintance, but affected not to see a fan which summoned him to a box on the other side of the house. Towards the end of a song to which, apparently, both lad been listening with undivided attention, Driscoll leaned over, and whispered in Hobson's ear:
"Do not look just now, but they are in the stalls almost below us. The girl has just recognised you, and she has not looked upon the stage since. Presently we will go and speak to her."
The song came to an end and, the singer being popular, there was a burst of applause. Then Hobson leaned over the box and looked into the facer of the girl who had given him that first downward thrust into the abyss from which Driscoll had rescued him. All the bitterness of his feelings towards her had long since passed away. It was Fate against which he railed--she was but its instrument, she was young and beautiful and fond of pleasure. No wonder that, however it might have hurt her, she had been forced to send away a penniless man. He was ready to make any amount of excuses for her and his eyes, in that brief gaze, told her so.
Instantly there was a change in her face! Her lips parted in a smile, she looked up at him and nodded. Hobson was in a seventh heaven of delight. The man at the girl's side glowered sullenly up into the box.
"You see," Hobson whispered to his companion, "she has just bowed to me. I am going down to speak to her."
"Don't be in too much of a hurry, she will be all the more glad to have you come for every moment you delay. I wonder where on earth she picked up that fellow."
The two men sat through three more turns. Through half-closed eyelids Driscoll was watching the man and the girl with amusement. The girl scarcely looked away from the box, and the man was apparently furious. Driscoll, who met her eyes once, looked away uneasily. He had become interested in this, the sole effort of philanthropy of his life, and he had suddenly become very doubtful as to the wisdom of bringing these two, the man and the girl, together again. Even when the interval arrived, for which he had been waiting, he hesitated for a moment or two. But Hobson was not to be denied. He was on his feet in a tremor of excitement. The girl's face was calling to him; there was the old look in her eyes--she was waiting for him. Driscoll recognised that he had gone too far to turn back now. He shrugged his shoulders and led the way from the box.
"You will shake hands with her," he said coolly, turning to Hobson, "and ask permission to introduce me. You had better get my name correctly--it is Sir Eric Driscoll. If she makes the mistake of introducing her companion, bow to him as slightly as you can, and take no further notice."
Hobson followed his guide like a man in a dream. On their way Driscoll shook hands with several men in the same row, and it was a few minutes before they reached the girl. She held out her hand to Hobson, and Driscoll looked down at her critically. She was even more beautiful than he had imagined. Her voice, too, was musical and well modulated. She exchanged a few sentences with Hobson, and then turned toward Driscoll. Hobson introduced him, and the two men sat down in vacant places by her side. As though by accident, Driscoll remained next to her.
He talked for several moments lightly of the performance, the building, the woman they had come to see. He was possessed of unlimited social tact and it was an easy enough matter to him to brush aside the little awkwardness of the situation. Presently he looked round at the smoke which was a little heavy near them, owing to the long black cigar which the man at her side was now puffing furiously.
"I am afraid you must find this atmosphere a little trying," he said. "I wish you would come in and sit with us for a little time. We will promise to smoke nothing but the mildest of cigarettes."
She hesitated for a moment, glancing towards her companion. His red, ungloved hands were folded upon a stick which he was carrying, and his face, which had been red enough at dinner time, was redder now with anger, as he leaned over, trying to hear what they were saying. It chanced that he was the only man in the row who was not in evening dress, and the vulgarity of his attire, which was unmistakable, rendered him all the more conspicuous by contrast with his neighbours. The girl shuddered for a moment, but she did not hesitate and she leaned towards him coldly.
"Mr. Hobson is a very old friend of mine," she said. "I am going into his box for a time."
The man's face was ill to look upon and the veins on his forehead stood out like whipcord.
"If you go," he said, "you needn't come back again."
She affected not to hear, and rose.
"I should like to go with you so much," she said to Driscoll. "The smoke here is making me feel quite ill, and your box looks so cool."
They passed out as the overture came to an end, and Driscoll led the way into the box. He placed a chair for her in the front, and motioned Hobson to sit by her side. Then he opened the door softly and slipped out. The girl heard the door close, and looked around as though to call him back, but Hobson, who had taken one of her hands in his, saw nothing of the regret in her face.
"Kathleen," he said hoarsely, "the luck has changed with me. I am going to make a fortune, after all. You know you always said you cared for me. It isn't too late, is it?"
She withdrew her hand, but laughed softly up at him, and he felt the pressure of her fingers, even as she withdrew them.
"You are just as impetuous as ever," she said. "Tell me all about it, and about your friend."
He looked out on the stage with eyes that saw nothing.
"Kathleen," he said, "after that day I think that I went steadily downhill. I ceased to make any but half-hearted attempts to have my motors examined; even those who had believed in me lost faith. I went down and down, until my clothes hung about me in rags, and I had not a farthing in the world, and I had not tasted food for days. There was only one thing left for me, and I summoned together what was left of my courage and prepared to do it. I walked out on to the Waterloo-bridge and climbed on to the parapet to throw myself over."
She shuddered and looked into his face with a curious expression. But he saw nothing, for he was looking down once more at the black, turbid waters of despair.
"When was this?" she asked.
"To-night; only a few hours ago."
She looked at him, amazed.
"Why, You must be dreaming!" she exclaimed.
"It must sound so," he answered. "I think it must be the strangest adventure a man ever had. Some day I will tell you all about it."
She drew her chair a little further back into the box.
"I want to hear now, at once," she said. "Tell me all about It."
DRISCOLL lounged through the house, smoking a cigarette and escaping, as far as possible, the notice of his acquaintances. But in the promenade he came face to face with a man who declined altogether to notice Driscoll's averted head and attempt to pass on. A firm hand was laid upon his shoulder, and a man's pleasant voice greeted him cordially.
"Driscoll, by all that's lucky!" the newcomer exclaimed. "Do you know you are the very last man I was thinking of. No, don't try to get away, there's a good fellow. You'll be glad you saw me directly."
"My dear Hubert," Driscoll answered wearily, "I shouldn't be glad to meet my dearest friend. I am in a beast of a temper, and not fit company for anyone. Let me go, there's a good chap. I'll look you up when I am more fit."
But Driscoll's friend had not the least idea of letting him go--on the contrary, his grasp became a little more tenacious. He drew him forward to the front of the promenade, and motioned toward the box where Hobson and the girl were sitting.
"There!" he exclaimed triumphantly, "aren't you glad you met me now?"
"I really can't imagine why," Driscoll said.
The young man at his side laughed impatiently.
"Look down into that box," he said. "Now perhaps you'll wake up a bit."
Driscoll stared blankly downwards without the least change of demeanour.
"I see a man whom I know slightly," he said, "and his fiancée, to whom I have just been introduced. They are very much in love with one another, and I found their society so little inspiring that I was glad to make my escape. Even," he added with a slight smile, "at the risk of being bored by a chatterbox like you."
"Oh, that's all rot!" the young man declared energetically. "You know perfectly well what I mean and what I brought you here for. The girl down there is the girl who was in your box at the Covent Garden ball."
Driscoll looked at him blandly without a tremor in his face.
"My dear fellow," he said, "you must either be dreaming or else trying to chaff me. The young lady is the daughter of an eminently respectable bank manager, and lives with her people down at Balham, and she is engaged to my friend there, who is an electrical engineer."
Driscoll turned slowly and looked his companion the face. The young man began to look uncomfortable. There was a suggestion of menace in that cold, hard stare.
"Look here, Hubert," Driscoll said, "you are the sort of young man who sometimes does a lot of harm by jumping at conclusions. Take care, if you please, that you do nothing of the sort in the present instance. Mr. Hobson is a friend of mine, and although the young lady is a complete stranger to me I am quite prepared to answer for her also. I hope that I have said enough."
The young man shrugged his shoulders.
"Oh, quite," he said. "I am sorry I said anything about it. Good night."
He turned away with a nod, and Driscoll remained where he was. He could see that Hobson and the girl were talking earnestly, and the man who bad been her companion had disappeared from his seat in the stalls. He himself was safe from observation for a while. The climax of the evening had arrived, for Otero was on the stage--brilliant, seductive and amazing. His eyes followed her movements languidly and without interest. It was curious how, since that moment when he had walked with light feet to the wall below which rolled the waters of Lethe, he had come to consider himself as a person having no actual existence. It chanced that he was interested for a while in the doings of other people, but it was in an impersonal sort of way. So far as he himself was concerned, the power of sensation seemed almost to have left him. This Spanish woman--a creature of flesh and blood to all those men who hung breathlessly upon her exquisitely lascivious movements, whose dark glances were like the bubble of wine in their veins, and whose voice--for now she was singing--was like passionate music in their ears, was to him only a shadow upon the blind. He was very glad to find it so. He had done with life, he told himself. It is doubtful whether anything else save the coincidence of Hobson's appearance, bent upon a similar errand, would have turned him from his purpose a few hours ago. He told himself that it was only short postponement. He had interfered in these people's concerns--he must see the matter through now. Afterwards--well, for him there was no afterwards. All that be sought for was oblivion.
He returned presently to the box. Hobson was radiant, the girl sphinx-like. Only she lifted her eyes when he entered and looked him in the face--a long, questioning gaze--and found nothing there.
"Your escort, Miss Cunningham." he said lightly, "seems to have gone home in a huff. I am going to be conceited enough--on behalf of myself and Hobson, to suggest that you regard his departure with equanimity, and make us responsible for your entertainment. How far away does Miss Cunningham live, Hobson, and can't we persuade her to come and have some supper with us?"
"I live at Balham," she said quietly; "but I was supposed to be staying to-night with friends of our neighbour, Mr. Gregson, the gentleman who was with me. I shall go home now."
"And the last train?" Hobson asked eagerly.
"Twelve o'clock," she answered, "so I am afraid that supper is out of the question."
"Why not drive down?" Driscoll suggested. "My carriage will be waiting, and he can get you down to Balham in half an hour and bring Hobson back again."
"I should like that very much," she answered.
"In that case perhaps supper would be a possibility?" Driscoll Suggested.
"My people are away, and I have a key," she answered. "In any case it will not matter so long as Mr. Hobson sees me home."
Driscoll reached down his coat.
"Suppose we go now then," he added. "There is nothing more of interest upon the programme."
Outside they came face to face with Gregson, who was waiting for her with sullen impatience. She started and grew a little pale, but Hobson data her arm through his and pushed forward. The man remained immovable, however. He ignored her companions and addressed her, his voice shaking with passion.
"You mean to make a fool of me then," he began, "look here--"
A piece of gold dropped into the palm of the tall commissionaire and a glance from Driscoll was sufficient to end the matter. Before Gregson knew where he was, he was bundled outside. Driscoll took Kathleen's hand and, stepping past, put her in a hansom.
"Follow us in another cab, Hobson," he said, "to the Queen's restaurant. It will be better for us to go separately. I will send for a carriage to meet us there."
They drove off. Driscoll kept the girl's hand in his, holding it with light, firm fingers.
"Listen," he said to her quietly, "we have only a minute or two, and I am going to tell you a little story--may I?"
She nodded and looked up to him with soft eyes. He affected to be unconscious of the wistful appeal which shone in them, or the pressure of the soft, ungloved hand.
"There was a man," he said, "who was very much bored one night, and who went to a Covent Garden ball. He was wandering about alone when he met a girl leaning against a pillar, looking on at the dancing. He was only an ordinary man, and she was a particularly pretty girl, so he went up and spoke to her. They spent the rest the evening together. The man was interested in the girl, and he found out several things which surprised him very much. Let me tell you some of them. He found out first of all that the girl was an utter stranger, that she knew nothing of her surroundings, that she had nothing in common with the class of people accustomed to frequent such places. He persuaded her to put on her mask, and he took her into his box, where the could talk more quietly. By degrees, she told him everything, and what she did not tell him he was easily able to piece together. She was young, very good looking, and very fond of pleasure. The man to whom she had been engaged, through repeated failures and disappointment, had become irritable and morose, and had dropped out of her life. Her family were very uncongenial, and her home life was miserably dull. She found herself on the night of the ball alone in London, owing to a sudden change in the plans of some friends with whom she had been staying--she prepared to go home when out sudden impulse seized her. The London through which she passed on her way to the station was fascinatingly gay! There was a seduction in the atmosphere which made the thought of her dull home almost sickening. She stopped the cab, drove to an hotel, changed her clothe, and went boldly to the dance. The man with whom she talked was the first to whom she had spoken, and the last. He was only an ordinary sort of fellow, but he had sisters, and she was only too glad to avail herself of his help. They had some supper together, and he took her back to the hotel, and sent his housekeeper to stay with her."
Driscoll paused. The girl's hand was clasping his warmly, and she pulled down her veil.
"The man," she whispered, "was the best friend the girl ever had, and she would like him to know that she has not forgotten."
Driscoll drew an almost imperceptible sigh of relief. The man Gregson was very ugly, and he had frightened him.
"We have only a moment more," he said. "Let me finish. It chanced that the man and the girl's lover and the girl came together. Her lover had become successful. There was nothing now in their way. The man thought it over, and he decided that the little episode of that night need never be told. The girl married her lover, and the man remained--their friend."
The cab drew up with a jerk. Driscoll alighted, and held out his hand.
"Come," he said, "how impatient these lovers are. Hobson is here before us, after all."
But the girl did not answer him, for she could not. She passed across the pavement into the restaurant and, in the glare of the electric lights, Driscoll saw the tears in her soft eyes.
"ERIC! Why, this is amazing."
He was leaving the house by the door through which she was entering. He bowed and held it open in silence.
"You have been to see me?" she asked.
"I have not been so presumptuous," he answered, smiling.
"I had business with your father."
"Business--fancy you having business with anyone. But do you really mean that you were going away without asking for me?"
"I am bound to admit," he answered, coolly, "that the Idea of seeing you had not occurred to me, or else--"
"Or else?" she asked.
"I should have endeavoured to leave five minutes earlier."
She flashed a reproachful glance upon him, which he utterly ignored.
"You will excuse me," he said; "I am rather In a hurry."
She remained between him and the glass doors.
"In a hurry?" she repeated: "have you turned politician or man of affairs? You can at least spare five minutes. Come in and talk with me."
"Quite impossible, I am afraid, Lady Beatrice; I have an appointment which is already overdue."
She shrugged her shoulders petulantly.
"Well, since you prefer it, we will talk here."
"Might I suggest, without rudeness, that I have nothing to say."
"Certainly not. Such a speech would be rudeness itself. First of all, I want to know what business you had with my father."
"I will tell you that with pleasure," he answered. "I have been exhibiting to him, by appointment, models of a new electric motor--adaptable to torpedo and small gunboats, with a view to greatly Increasing their speed."
"What on earth are you talking about."
"I am sorry If I was not sufficiently explicit. The motive power is obtained by--"
"Oh, please don't. Surely you haven't turned inventor?"
"No, but I am financing one. I find it rather amusing."
A carriage drove up, and some visitors for the Earl of Calthurst passed into the hall. Driscoll hoped in make his escape, but the girl took advantage of the situation. She spoke to him from across the hail.
"I want you to come in here for a moment, Sir Eric," she said. "I have something to show you."
In the presence of the servants and some acquaintances who were waiting to be announced to her father, Driscoll had no alternative but to obey. Nevertheless, he passed into the little morning-room unwillingly, and with an ominous tightening of the lips. The girl had done mischief enough already. Surely she might leave him alone now.
"You are very unkind to me, Eric," she said.
"I am sorry. I have no Intention of being so."
"You will not he friends?"
"Friendship is so indefinable."
"Why attempt a definition?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Our readings of the part might differ."
"You will never forgive me, then."
"I have nothing to forgive."
She threw herself into a chair between him and the door, and fingered the gold chain which hung from her neck, nervously.
"I am very dull," she said.
"His Grace the Duke of Dowchester should see to that," he answered.
"But his Grace is also very dull."
"You do not expect me to sympathise with you?" he asked.
"Evidently, if I did, I should be disappointed.
"And deservedly so," he said sternly. "Lady Beatrice, I do not know what your object is in keeping me here against my will. If you will permit me, I shall be glad to bring this Interview to a close. There is nothing which I can say to you, nothing which you can say to me, likely to afford either of us the least satisfaction."
"Is it to be like this," she said, looking up at him over her bent hands--"always?"
"What else," he asked coldly, "is possible? Must I remind you of the circumstances? You were my betrothed wife, and you jilted me to become the Duchess of Dowchester. I do not blame you in the least. I prefer to believe in the doctrine of irresponsibility. You could not help yourself. You did exactly what a woman, framed you are, was bound to do. In a month or two's time I also shall have forgotten, but at present you must excuse me. I am suffering from a mixture of spleen and wounded vanity. I regret to say that your presence irritates me. You will see the propriety, I am sure, of allowing me to leave you."
She stood up and faced him, her eyes soft, her voice tremulous. Her arms were out, stretched towards him.
"I think," she said softly, "that I will not let you go. I think that I will ask you to stay."
He raised his eyeglass and looked at her with a smile in which were blended admiration and amusement.
"My dear Lady Beatrice," he said, "the misfortune of your birth and wealth has robbed the stage of one who might have been amongst its chiefest ornaments. Permit me to congratulate you, and to wish you, for your next performance, a more sympathetic and--must I say it--a more gullible audience."
The girl never moved, but she covered her face with her hands. Driscoll picked up his hat and made his way, by circuitous route, to the door. As he turned the handle, he came face to face with a young man who was entering.
"Hello, Driscoll," he exclaimed, somewhat awkwardly, "Just leaving, eh?"
"To my great regret, yes," Driscoll answered, ignoring the young man's proffered hand. "Lady Beatrice has been entertaining me so delightfully that I almost forgot a most important engagement. You must take care of your wife's histrionic talents, Dowchester, or some day you will find her adding additional lustre to your name, upon the stage."
Driscoll passed out of the house and into the street with the sound of a sob echoing in his ears. Yet he felt no curiosity as to what might pass between Dowchester and his fiancée. It was, in reality, but a few weeks ago, it seemed to him then but yesterday, since he himself had held that position. To think that a woman's caprice could make so much difference to a man. He thought of Hobson, a man probably on the brink of fame and great wealth--yet who valued these things merely because they brought him the love of a very ordinary young woman. And he thought of himself, prepared at any moment to die with light heart not, as would fain have persuaded himself a few nights ago when looking downward with eager eyes into the black, rolling water, because of the general emptiness of life--a vague intellectual melancholy which is inseparable from a thoughtful life--but because the woman, whom he had trusted, had proved unworthy. It was a knowledge against which he struggled desperately, but ineffectually. He had deceived Hobson, but himself he could not deceive. He was to be one more of that long unending procession of men who have staked the very breath of their body, the last beat of their heart, upon a woman's constancy--and lost. How he had scoffed at them in his day--the men who had seen nothing else in life save the love of a single woman and, falling that, had chosen chaos!
He laughed bitterly to himself, as he realised whither his purposeless footstep had led him. He was once more upon the bridge, within a few yards a the spot where he had met Hobson. He leaned over the parapet and watched the sunbeams strike upon the water, no longer black and turbid. After all, it was not an aesthetic blunder to pass out from a world through portals of gloom and ugly surroundings. It was better, surely, to strike the water there where the sunlight turned it into silver crystal. To look with dying eyes upon a sky of blue, to breathe with one's last gasp a draught of the west wind. He found himself drawing nearer and nearer to the edge, his hands were gripping the stonework fiercely, he was forced to avert his eyes from one particular spot of sun-smitten water, which seemed to appeal to him with a curious and almost irresistible fascination as the very spot where it would be pleasant to make that long looked for plunge into an unknown world. With an effort he stepped back from the recess to the pavement. There was Hobson to be thought of, the man with whose destiny he had interfered, and whom he must therefore set right again with the world before he left it. The next day would decide on which side of the narrow line he stood, whether he were indeed genius or madman. He must wait for that, at any rate. Hobson must have every encouragement that it was possible to give him, for it was not the man's future alone which hung in the balance, but the fate of the girl.
UP and down the room Hobson was walking with brief, restless steps and frequent glances towards the door. For the hour of trial had come--and passed. It was the final decision only for which he was waiting now. His models had been tried, had been pulled over and tested in a dozen different ways, and had acquitted themselves excellently. He was conscious that he had had his chance. He had kept cool, been ready with his explanations, deferential to the few criticisms which had been passed, alert and keen to every word which bad been spoken. Very soon now he must hear from them. The door opened and Driscoll entered.
"I Congratulate you, Hobson," he said, quietly. "Government experts for once are unanimous. Your motor is to be recommended for general use. Whitehall to-morrow at 12 to arrange terms. Let's get out of this stuffy old show."
They walked out together. Hobson said little, for his brain was in a whirl. It is given to few men to taste, within a fortnight, the bitterest dregs of despair and the sweetest joys of success. Yet, with it all, his sense of gratitude to the man who walked so nonchalantly, almost wearily, by his side was vivid and keen.
"Sir Eric Driscoll," he said, "I have no words--there are no words in which I could thank you."
"I really beg most heartily that you will not try," Driscoll said, with a momentary earnestness. "If you knew how I disliked it you wouldn't. Besides, it is part of out bargain."
They walked along in silence. Hobson was a changed man. Well dressed--Driscoll had insisted that a shabby inventor stood no chance whatever--bright-eyed and buoyant, the contrast between him and his companion was marked, indeed. For Driscoll, although his personal appearance was irreproachable, carried with him the shadow of a profound melancholy, which his sunken cheeks and lack-lustre eyes rendered the more noticeable. In pleading Hobson's cause he had been more than usually earnest. The effort had passed away, and the old, passionless cynicism was falling upon him once more. Hobson, glancing towards him and noticing his altered expression, was oppressed with a sudden cold fear. For him, indeed, life had changed since those few nights ago when they had stood upon the bridge side by side; for Driscoll nothing was altered. The weariness of which he had spoken was still there. His views were unaltered, his life unchanged. Even now he was gazing idly downwards--a faint yearning in the lustreless eyes, which saw there between the arches where the swelling tide splashed softly, the only possible panacea for a broken heart and a broken spirit. Hobson, with the animal desire for life now hot in his veins, and the flavour of it between his teeth, shivered as he thought of that night of sorrows so near--yet from which he himself had passed so far away. But Driscoll!
"You are going to Balham, I suppose?" Driscoll asked. "I will walk to Waterloo with you."
Hobson had an inspiration.
"Come with me," he said.
Driscoll laughed harshly. The idea was not without its humour. He saw the little household exactly as Kathleen had described it to him. Would he talk of the city with the bank manager, or of the cheap culture of the magazines and picture galleries with his wife, or share with Hobson the timid conversation of their daughter?
"I think not, Hobson," he said. "Let us understand one another. Our ways part here. Chance brought us together, but from henceforth our lives are apart. You must marry Kathleen, and settle down to enjoy your good fortune. As for me, I have another call, and this time there is nothing to keep me back from following it."
Hobson pointed downwards.
"You ore thinking of that," he said, in an awed voice.
"And if I am, my friend," he said, "who are you to look so horrified? Has a little success planted your feet so solidly on the earth of the commonplace? A week, a fortnight--was it longer since you and I stood in one another's way with a common idea? With you there have been changes--but with me, is it not the same?"
"I had lost my bearings," Hobson said, hoarsely. "I was not sane! But you have no reason. It is folly. You are rich and young and clever. You can make what you will of the future."
"Hobson," Driscoll said, calmly, "you are a young man of excellent principles, but--forgive me--your limitations are absurdly manifest. I am really afraid that your gods are the material things of life. I shudder to believe it, but I seem to see you soon settled in and growing orchids. You will also grow a beard, become stout, and have babies. I have not the slightest objection to any of these things, you understand, but you mustn't think that, because they are also possibilities to me, I must face life with a grin, and find a Madonna in every pretty girl. Go your way, young man! There is a train gliding Balhamwards yonder, and the whistle will sound soon for the next. You may even, if you hurry, have the joy of travelling down with your papa-in-law to be, for the banks are closed, and the black-coated mob are streaming over the bridge like rats. Don't be afraid of him. He won't frown at you now, for your name is in the evening papers and you are famous. He will smile graciously, even If ponderously, and there will be something extra for dinner! Be off now, Hobson, there's a good chap! I'm tired of talking nonsense."
"Do you ever try to be serious, I wonder," Hobson said.
Driscoll shrugged his shoulders and yawned.
"You would oblige me," he said, "if yon could cease to gape at me with the face of an owl, and run for your train. Am I to be kept at the corner of this draughty street any longer, or must I come and put you in the train?"
"I will not go," Hobson said, "unless I know that you will not--"
"You know. You have the look on your face now which you had there when I first saw it--when I peered forward to see you under a gas lamp hung with fog. I had not believed that you, too, were carrying your life it your hands--but when I saw you I did not doubt any more. I felt that you were as I was. And to-night it is there again, and I am afraid to leave you to cross the bridge alone."
"And may I ask, my young friend," Driscoll said coolly, "what business it is of yours. Am I to have your company thrust upon me when I do not desire it, because I chance to have done you a service? If this is your idea of gratitude, may the heavens preserve me from helping any more young men. I don't want to have a body guard leading me about by the hand for fear I might do something rash. Be off, Hobson! Our ways lie apart now! Be sensible and recognise it."
The north countryman was awake in Hobson. His jaw was set, and he stood shoulder to shoulder with the man who was seeking to make his escape.
"It may be that I'm a nuisance to you, Sir Erie Driscoll," he said, "but if you want to get rid of me, you've got to answer a plain question and leave off mocking. That's the long and the short of it."
Driscoll's eyes flashed for a moment--then he laughed. The man wearied him, but there was a certain amount of bitter humour in the situation. He turned up his coat collar and lit it cigarette.
"You have chosen an exceedingly uncomfortable spot to bully me in," he said, "but there is an air of determination about you which I must confess subdues me. I am afraid to run away, for I am sure that you would not follow me, and I hate being ridiculous! Ergo--let us have this plain question of yours."
"The first time we met," Hobson said, "we had a common purpose in our minds. I want to know if, with you, that purpose remains."
"Assuredly," Driscoll answered, "why not?"
Hobson was staggered for a moment. He recovered himself quickly.
"Very well," he said, "that settles it. I shall not go to Balham to-night."
"But why not--what are you going to do?" Driscoll asked.
"I am going to stay with you," was the firm answer. "You are in a dangerous mood to-night. I am going to see that you do not yield to the folly from which you saved me."
"You are going to stay with me?" Driscoll repeated, a cynical note of amusement in his tone. "How charming! And, may I ask, do you intend to spend the night upon my door step, or will you bribe my servants to let you sleep upon the mat outside my room? You are so very, very ridiculous, my dear Hobson. As if any word or action of yours could alter destiny--my destiny."
"Nevertheless," Hobson said doggedly, "I am going where you go. If you shut your door in my face, I shall wait in the street. What sort of creatures are you and I to talk about destiny? We know no more about it than the wind."
"Upon my word, you are getting eloquent, my young inventor," Driscoll said. "If you really intend to ignore the claims of your lady love and make yourself a nuisance to me, you must have your way, I suppose. It is possible that you may amuse me if I succeed in making you angry or drunk. I will try both, but not in this confounded draught. I propose to return to my house. Ah, I thought you would choose to walk upon my left. There arc fascinations galore in those parapets."
They re-crossed the bridge, arm in arm. At the fourth recess, Driscoll paused.
"How interesting," he exclaimed, "it was here that we first met, my young protector. And what a scowl you had on your face."
Hobson dragged him on.
"We are going to forget that night," he said. "May the memory of it perish for ever."
"WINE, Hobson, wine! The drink of gods! Fill up, man, and drink. Up to the brim! What a sparkle! I tell you, Hobson, if my morals are bad, my wine is good, Come--a toast!"
Hobson lifted his glass. He was hard-headed, and on his guard. Yet the wine was old, and the witchery of his host's graciousness was great. Driscoll had been at his best and the dinner had been long protracted. They were side by side now under the rose-shaded electric lights--lights which flashed softly on elegant flowers with long, drooping blossoms and a delicate perfume, on dishes of Sèvres china piled with rare fruits, and on the wonderful wine which gleamed and glowed In the tall-stemmed, beautifully cute glasses.
"A toast," Driscoll cried, and for the first time a spot of colour burned upon his pallid cheeks. "A toast, my sad and watchful friend. Fill up to the brim!"
"My glass runs over," Hobson answered huskily. "The toast."
Driscoll leaned across the table with outstretched glass. The delicate, white fingers which clasped the stem were firm and steady. Though the wine touched the brim not a drop was spilt.
"To the lady in black," he cried. "To the lady with the sorrowful countenance! To the lady who walks upon the waters of Lethe, with her pale face turned to the skies, and her lips wailing--for us! Can't you hear her Hobson? Calling us to her sweet, cold bosom! Drink with me, man--to Death!'"
But Hobson set down his glass.
"Not I," he answered. "I have looked her in the face, and I have seen nothing beautiful there! The cold, grinning face of a skeleton is no toast for me to-night! I drink to Life!"
"And I to her sable ladyship--to Death!"
They raised their glasses high in the air. A wonderful smile broke across Driscoll's face, and his eyes seemed suddenly to be looking outside the walls of the room into another world. The goblet touched his lips, but in an instant fell shattered at his feet. The wine flowed in a little stream across the tablecloth. Hobson's fingers were bleeding with a cut from the glass which he had dashed away. There was silence between the two men. Hobson was breathing hard, and the blood dripped slowly and unnoticed on to the white cloth.
"My friend," Driscoll sold, regretfully, "you have spoilt a very carefully planned and dramatic situation, in addition to which you have hopelessly smashed a Venetian glass which is priceless, and cut your finger! You are most inconsiderate! Really, I am annoyed with you."
"I saw you put the powder in," Hobson said, thickly. "You were quick, but I saw you! You are mad, Driscoll."
"Then, for heaven's sake, don't interfere," Driscoll said. "Don't you know that madness is nothing but a beautiful delirium?"
"Tommy rot!" Hobson muttered, keeping his eye upon him.
"How vulgar--and how ignorant," Driscoll continued, calmly. "Once upon a time there lived a race of people who understood. When one of their number went mad, he became holy--a chosen one of God-a sacred person. It was a beautiful idea! There is truth in it!"
"I wish you'd talk sense," Hobson said, uneasily. "I wonder--"
He stopped short. A servant had entered the room and approached his master. Driscoll looked up, frowning.
"I told you not to come until I rang," he said.
"I am very sorry, sir," the man answered, "but there is a lady here who wishes to see you."
"Rubbish," Driscoll answered, "send her away! You ought to know better than to admit her!"
"I am very sorry, sir," the man repeated; "but I cannot get her to go away. I have tried everything, short of sending for the police."
"Then send for them," Driscoll said. "I am not to be disturbed. Understand that."
The man withdrew, but in a few momenta returned. Driscoll, who was in the act of lighting a cigarette, looked round in cold surprise.
"I am very sorry, indeed, sir," the man declared, "but the young lady has written her name on this card, and she says if yon decline to see her after you have looked at it, she will go away at once, otherwise she will remain. I thought it best to bring it in, sir."
Driscoll raised his eye-glass and took the card from the salver the man held out to him. He looked at it thoughtfully for a moment without change of countenance. Then he looked quietly across at Hobson.
"You were quite right, Burdett," he said. "I will see the lady in a moment. Hobson, I must trouble you to come into this room for a few minutes."
He opened the door which led out into his study, but Hobson hesitated.
"If I leave you," he said, "I must have your promise that you will not--"
"I understand," Driscoll interrupted. "You have my promise."
Hobson passed out and Driscoll closed the door carefully. Then he walked back to the table and dropped a serviette upon the blood stains.
"Show the young lady in, Burdett," he directed.
The man disappeared for a moment. Driscoll threw his cigarette into the fire with a little gesture of annoyance. Then he looked up to greet the girl who had already passed the threshold. She came towards him, a little flush on her cheeks, but she halted when she became aware of his unresponsiveness.
"You are angry with me," she said sorrowfully. "I am go sorry! Didn't you want to see me?"
"Here--certainly not," he answered calmly. "You should not have come, Miss Kathleen, and--what on earth do you want?"
She came slowly to his side and looked up at him. He found himself smiling with a pity which had northing of graciousness in it.
"I wanted to see you," she said slowly. "Last night--Mr. Hobson was talking of you--I made him--and he thinks that you are so unhappy, and very lonely: and all to-day I have been thinking, and at last--"
"Well, I came!"
"So I perceive," he remarked drily. "Don't you think, young lady, it would have been better if you had waited until I asked you to come? No, I don't mean to be unkind or anything of that sort, but you are a foolish girl to come her, and I'm going to put you in a cab and send you home at once!"
"But why?" she asked tearfully. "Why mayn't I stay with you for a little while? You are very lonely and very unhappy! Wouldn't you care to have me talk to you?"
"You are making a mistake, little girl," he said. "I am not at all lonely, and very far from being unhappy. And I'm sorry you came here, and I want you to go away at once, because you are going to marry a very good fellow who is my friend. Do you see?"
She turned very white and looked away.
"I do not know," she said slowly, "whether I am going to marry him or not. When I think of--of the evening when you were so good to me--and--of you--I don t want to marry him at all. There! Are you angry with me now?"
"No, I'm not angry," he said gently, "only I'm sorry, Kathleen; you're a very nice girl, I know, and I will tell you something which I have never told anyone else in the world. There is someone, a woman, Kathleen, and it is not you--whom I love very dearly, I love her so much that, though she has not been very kind to me, no other woman could ever be of the slightest interest to me. She has very nearly broken my heart, and that is why I am unhappy. Now I am going to ring and have my servant take you home in a cab."
She looked with sad eyes into the fire. He came over and rested his hand lightly upon her shoulder.
"Kathleen," he said, "you are a foolish, impetuous woman, but I like you, and I should like to think that you will be happy. Hobson is a capital fellow, and he loves you honestly and wholly. He will make you a good husband, and he is soon to be very rich. Now, I want you to promise that you will try to forget this foolishness, and make up your mind to marry him. Come--will you?"
She was silent. He patted her gently on the shoulder.
"Say yes," he pleaded, and it was odd how little of cynicism there was in his tone! "Do, there's a good girl. It will make me happier, if you care about that."
"Yes!" she said, with a little sigh, "I promise."
He withdrew his hand, smiling, and looked up. The servant was announcing that the cab was ready. With a sigh of relief he led her out.
"I am stare you will be happy," he said, as they stood together for a moment on the pavement. "Hobson is an awfully good fellow, and he is devoted to you."
"And you?" she asked, looking once more into his face.
He bowed to her gallantly.
"For me," he said, "there are many things left. Many things."
DRISCOLL remained for several minutes alone in the room before he summoned Hobson. On the mantel shelf stood a large, square card of invitation, gorgeous with gilt, and beaded with strawberry leaves. He looked at it steadily with unmoved face. Then a queer little smile twitched at the corners of his lips.
"What if I should go?" he murmured softly to himself. "Would they think me a Banquo at the feast, I wonder, or would poor Dowchester think that I had come as Lochinvar, and lock his lady up? Bah! I won't risk it. I might flinch...Hobson, come out. I am alone."
Hobson made his way from the inner room and seated himself in an arm chair.
"You will pardon my asking questions which may savour of the inhospitable," Driscoll said, "but are you proposing to remain here all night? My house, of course, is perfectly at your disposal, but it will be necessary for me to order a room for you."
"I am going to stay here," Hobson answered, "until I have your word that you will make no attempt upon your life, in any shape or form."
"And, supposing," Driscoll said, "that I order my servants to put you out--I have two tall footmen, and although you look wiry, you would be only a child to them--what then?"
"I should tell them all the reason why I persisted In remaining with you," Driscoll said, "and I should call in the police, and give you is charge for attempting to commit suicide."
Driscoll sat down in his chair and laughed long and heartily.
"I believe you, Hobson," he said at last.
"I believe that you would do It. Come, you are too many for me. Let us make terms."
"I am perfectly willing," Hobson said. "Your word of honour is all I want."
"Then you shall have it," Driscoll answered. "I want to be alone to-night, so I will pay the price. I give you my word that I will make no attempt upon my life for 24 hours. That is on condition that you leave me at once, take a cab and drive to Balham as hard as you can."
"That's Just what I'm going to do," Hobson said. "I'll be beck in 23 hours and three-quarter."
He hurried out. Driscoll, with a long sigh of relief, was alone at last. He heard his door keeper whistle for a hansom and Hobson drove off. Then he sat down in his old place at the little round dining table, and leaned his head upon his hands. This was the night which he had dreaded so much--from which he had desired to escape--even by the way from which there could be no return. To-night she was to be presented to the great world as the future Duchess of Dowchester. Whatever faint regrets she might have had would be silenced to-night for ever. The glories of Dowchester House would blaze forth in all their magnificence, royalty was to be present to offer its congratulations, to-night truly she would gather the first blossoms of her shamelessness. She had been through the discomfort of breaking a man's heart and survived. To-night would bring her the recompense. He looked, with eyes under which were stamped the marks of pain, across his disordered table--his own life was like that--and he cursed his promise to Hobson.
There was the sound of a carriage stopping outside, the champing of bits and the pawing of horses' feet. His bell was ringing, a woman's voice was asking for him.
"Sir Eric is not at home, your Ladyship," he heard Burdett say, he even caught the note of surprise in his tone. He himself had clutched the end of the table, and was listening with feverish intentness.
"Not at home! Then I will come in and wait for him. I know the way, thank you, You need not trouble."
There was the sound of a feeble remonstrance from the startled servant, the swish of skirts across the hall, and his door opened and closed. A woman, wrapped from head to foot in a magnificent opera cloak, and her hair ablaze with diamonds, was crossing the room towards him. Then Driscoll quaked, for he was afraid of himself. He was taken at a disadvantage. It was a brutal thing to do.
She was close by his side and her arms moved out towards him He rose to his feet, and bowed gravely, keeping the chair between himself and her.
"Lady Beatrice," he said, "you might have spared me and yourself--this piece of Quixotism. Allow me to take you back to your carriage at once."
She laughed softly.
"Much too late, my friend," she said, sitting down in Hobson's chair and taking a peach from a dish. "May I have a glass of wine, please? I'm awfully thirsty."
Driscoll gravely poured out some Château Yquem into one of the tall-stemmed glasses and handed it to her with perfectly steady fingers.
"I presume," he said, quietly, "that you know what you are doing, and that you have some motive for this extraordinary conduct. Nevertheless, as your father has been my friend, I must tell you, Lady Beatrice, that your presence here is quite sufficient to ruin your very brilliant prospects, and to cause--scandal! Added to which, it is most inconvenient to myself."
"So sorry," she remarked, carelessly, taking a bite from her peach! "Ugh, how juicy. Give me a serviette, please."
Driscoll passed her one in silence.
"So you've had a little party, have you?" she said, looking round. "How messy you men are. Cigar ash and wine stain everywhere. I wish I'd been a little earlier, though. I've had no dinner, and I hate travelling when I'm hungry."
"You are alike talking and acting in riddles, Lady Beatrice," Driscoll said stiffly. "You are going to the ball at Dowchester House to-night, of course, and I insist upon--"
She shook her head.
"No, I'm not," she declared.
Driscoll looked at her with cold, set face.
"Then where are you going?" he asked.
"To Paris, at one o'clock--with you," she said. "See!"
She threw back her opera cloak. Underneath, instead of a ball dress, was a plain travelling gown.
"I've got a hat in the hall," she said, "and a pair of shoes in a brown paper parcel. The only thing I've forgotten is hat pins! By the bye, you haven't too much time. Ring for your man to put some things together, please, and you'd better put a frock coat in, because you've got to marry me to-morrow at the Embassy."
Driscoll rose slowly up, and his eyes were burning with dull fire.
"Lady Beatrice," he said, "if you have come here to indulge--"
"Oh, don't be such an idiot," she interrupted. "I came here in my own carriage and I've sent it away. I've written everybody quite beautiful letters and explained and, of course, as you were good enough to tell me, I've compromised myself fatally. Kiss me, Eric, and then ring the bell!"
"You see," she explained, as the train gilded out of Charing Cross station, "I should never have dared to have done this but for one thing. You know you've been very horrid to me. You came and were cold and cynical and broke our engagement, because you had been told something which wasn't true. Now you shall see how foolish you've been. Dowchester proposed to me at Mrs. Collingwood's, but I refused him and said that I was engaged to you. The next morning you believed some trash which you had heard and returned my nice little presents--and oh, what a letter. Well, I was mad and sat down and wrote to Dowchester. That was how I became engaged and I say that it was your fault."
"It seems so," Driscoll admitted.
"You never gave me a chance to explain afterwards. You were simply detestable. I can assure you that you will have to be something wonderful in the way of husbands to make up for all the trouble you've caused me. The impudence of you, too, to make me come and elope with you!"
"I can't think how you were ever brave enough," he said.
"There's one thing," she said, "which would certainly have kept me from ever attempting anything of the sort. You had behaved so strangely that I was not at all sure that you cared. But to-night, as I was dressing for that beastly ball, I had a visitor--a young woman from Balham. She told me a little story--and when she had finished--well, I just hugged her. Then I began to plot--and, here we are!"
"But I never told her your name," Driscoll said, bewildered.
"She saw it in a society paper," Beatrice said. "Be grateful to them all your life, Mr. Cynic, for, but for the society notes somewhere or other, I should have been dancing now with the Duke of Dowchester."
"You would have made," he said, "an admirable Duchess!"
"I shall make," she answered, "an adorable wife."
There was a slight fog and the suburban traffic was disarranged. Hobson's hansom, too, was slow, and when he drew up before the house in Hamilton Square, the twenty-four hours had already expired. He sprang up the steps with a vague sensation of fear. There was a deserted look about the house, and one or two loiterers in the street were looking up at it curiously. He rang the bell impatiently, and his heart was sick with fear.
A tall footman answered it.
"Where is Sir Eric?" Hobson asked. "I want to see him at once."
The man smiled.
"Sir Eric is not here, sir," he answered. "He has gone abroad."
"Abroad!" Hobson looked at him in blank amazement. At least there was no suggestion of a tragedy in the man's face.
"Yes, sir. Haven't you seen the papers this evening?"
"No, what is it?" Hobson asked breathlessly.
The man, who had recognised him as Sir Eric's guest of the night before, drew him inside.
"These reporters are so bothersome, sir," he explained. "Sir Eric eloped last night with Lady Beatrice Calthurst, the fiancée of the Duke of Dowchester. They were to have been married next month."
"Great Heavens!" Hobson exclaimed, sitting down on a hall chair.
"We're all very glad about it, sir," the man remarked confidently. "You see, the master was engaged to Lady Beatrice, and it was broken off through a misunderstanding, and Sir Eric, though he seemed brave enough to his friends and everybody, was about broken hearted. Last night, when she should have been at the great ball at Dowchester House, she comes here as bold as brass, and just carries him off with her! You should have seen his face when he handed her into the carriage. And, oh, Lord! you should have seen the Duke."
"Has he been here," Hobson asked.
"About midnight," the man answered. "He came in all his grand uniform from the ball and, oh, how he swore! He wouldn't believe that they'd gone--he looked through all the rooms himself, and when he went off--well, I never heard such language in my life. He was a fair scorcher, sir--begging your pardon."
"Have you heard from your master?" Hobson inquired.
The man pointed to the wall, where a telegram was pinned.
FROM DRISCOLL, HOTEL BRISTOL, PARIS.
BURDETT, 10, HAMILTON-PLACE.
DRINK THE HEALTH OF LADY BEATRICE DRISCOLL AND MYSELF. WIRE ENGERBY. SEND YACHTING CLOTHES. DRISCOLL.
"Engerby is Sir Eric's country place, sir," the man explained.
Hobson rose and thrust something which rustled into the man's hand.
"Please take this," he said, "for telling me the best news I ever heard in my life!"
The man bowed and whistled for a hansom. Hobson drove back to Victoria, where Kathleen was waiting for him.
"Come," he said, "we must go and have the best dinner we can get, and the best wine, for we have a toast to drink."
She gave a little sigh, but looked up at him smiling.
"Sir Eric and Lady Beatrice Driscoll," he answered joyfully.
Roy Glashan's Library. Go to Home Page